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Mike Minor: Major Sleeper

Mike Minor is a forgotten man. The lefty is overshadowed by young studs like Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado and Arodys Vizcaino within the Braves’ organization, and a career ERA closer to five than four in the majors over the past two seasons seemingly supplies ammo to those who panned Atlanta for playing it safe with the seventh pick in the 2009 draft. Fantasy folks certainly aren’t impressed, as MockDraftCentral’s latest ADP numbers have Minor going 308th overall, behind damaged goods like Carlos Zambrano and Francisco Liriano and just ahead of the Aaron Harangs of the world.

While it’s easy to recall the “low upside” label slapped on Minor when he came out of Vanderbilt and point to his unimpressive big league ERA as confirmation, that assessment ignores his superb minor league track record and promising peripheral stats in the majors. Minor, locked in to a back-of-the-rotation spot with the Braves, looks like one of the biggest sleepers in the game entering spring training.

In 235 minor league innings spent mostly at the Triple-A level, Minor whiffed an even ten batters per nine innings, walked 2.8 per nine, surrendered 0.8 HR/9 and had both an ERA (3.14) and Fielding Independent Pitching (3.09) in the low threes. At first blush, it appears like that success hasn’t translated to the bigs in 2010 and 2011 — after all, his 4.74 ERA in 123.1 frames was seventh-tenths of a run higher than that of the average National League starter over that time frame. Look deeper, however, and you’ll find plenty to like about Minor’s major league work.

Minor doesn’t have Kershaw-level velocity or a knee-buckling breaking ball, but his four-pitch mix misses plenty of bats. He has struck out 22% of hitters faced in the majors, putting him in the same range as starters like Ian Kennedy, Madison Bumgarner and C.J. Wilson. Minor’s low-90s fastball, low-80s changeup and high-70s curveball all have above-average whiff rates:

Pitch Pct. Thrown Whiff Rate (Whiffs/Total Pitches) MLB Avg.
Fastball 63 6.3 6
Changeup 16 12.7 12.1
Curveball 10 15.6 10.5

Source: TexasLeaguers.com

Minor’s control is solid, too. He pounds the strike zone with his fastball (66% strike rate, 64% MLB average) and changeup (70%, 61% MLB average), which has led to a 7.5% walk rate. That’s close to marks put up by Matt Garza, Matt Harrison and Ervin Santana. And while Minor gets few grounders (just 36%), Turner Field is friendly to fly ball pitchers. Compared to a neutral park, The Ted decreases home runs by 5% for left-handed hitters and 8% for righties, according to StatCorner. That has helped him keep give up less than a homer per nine innings pitched (0.95 HR/9).

So, in terms of the skills that are most under a pitcher’s control and best predict future ERA — strike outs, walks and homers — Minor has been a quality big league starter. That’s reflected in his 3.51 FIP, which actually puts him in Tommy Hanson/Jon Lester territory. I’m not suggesting Minor should be taken ahead of those more proven guys, but it serves to show that he has been awfully impressive at the MLB level when you get past his near-.360 batting average on balls in play. Minor didn’t give up hits on balls in play at a crazy-high rate in the minors (a .297 BABIP from 2009-11), and you know by now that BABIP is one of the flakiest stats for pitchers.

Even if you assume that Minor is prone to giving up a higher BABIP than most pitchers (his projections for 2012 range from .299 from The Fans to .330 from RotoChamp), his bat-missing ability, quality control and pitcher-friendly home park make him a good bet to post an ERA much closer to that of his fielding-independent stats in 2012. All of the projection systems and The Fans call for around a K per inning, with a walk rate slightly over three and around a homer per nine allowed, with an ERA ranging from 3.8 to 4.00. That’s basically Michael Pineda circa 2011, or Tommy Hanson Lite.

Minor has the minor league dossier of a top young arm, has proven he can whiff hitters in the majors and is ready for a full season’s worth of starts, as the Braves gradually increased his innings pitched total from 156 in 2010 to 183 last season. Sure, he doesn’t throw 95 and isn’t as sexy a pitcher as Teheran or Delgado, but who cares? Minor is a major sleeper, and he might be the best value you’ll get on draft day. Ignore him at your own peril.